Designing nanocellulose (?) products in Finland; update on Canada’s CelluForce

A VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Oct. 2, 2013 news release (also on EurekAlert) has announced an initiative which combines design with technical expertise in the production of cellulose- (nanocellulose?) based textile and other products derived from wood waste,

The combination of strong design competence and cutting-edge cellulose-based technologies can result in new commercially successful brands. The aim is for fibre from wood-based biomass to replace both cotton production, which burdens the environment, and polyester production, which consumes oil. A research project launched by VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, Aalto University and Tampere University of Technology aims to create new business models and ecosystems in Finland through design-driven cellulose products.

The joint research project is called Design Driven Value Chains in the World of Cellulose (DWoC). The objective is to develop cellulose-based products suitable for technical textiles and consumer products. The technology could also find use in the pharmaceutical, food and automotive industries. Another objective is to build a new business ecosystem and promote spin-offs.

Researchers seek to combine Finnish design competence with cutting-edge technological developments to utilise the special characteristics of cellulose to create products that feature the best qualities of materials such as cotton and polyester. Product characteristics achieved by using new manufacturing technologies and nanocellulose as a structural fibre element include recyclability and individual production.

The first tests performed by professor Olli Ilkkala’s team at the Aalto University showed that the self-assembly of cellulose fibrils in wood permits the fibrils to be spun into strong yarn. VTT has developed an industrial process that produces yarn from cellulose fibres without the spinning process. VTT has also developed efficient applications of the foam forming method for manufacturing materials that resemble fabric.

“In the future, combining different methods will enable production of individual fibre structures and textile products, even by using 3D printing technology,” says Professor Ali Harlin from VTT.

Usually the price of a textile product is the key criterion even though produced sustainably. New methods help significantly to shorten the manufacturing chain of existing textile products and bring it closer to consumers to respond to their rapidly changing needs. Projects are currently under way where the objective is to replace wet spinning with extrusion technology. The purpose is to develop fabric manufacturing methods where several stages of weaving and knitting are replaced without losing the key characteristics of the textile, such as the way it hangs.

The VTT news release also provides statistics supporting the notion that cellulose textile products derived from wood waste are more sustainable than those derived from cotton,

Finland’s logging residue to replace environmentally detrimental cotton Cotton textiles account for about 40% of the world’s textile markets, and oil-based polyester for practically the remainder. Cellulose-based fibres make up 6% of the market. Although cotton is durable and comfortable to wear, cotton production is highly water-intensive, and artificial fertilisers and chemical pesticides are often needed to ensure a good crop. The surface area of cotton-growing regions globally equates to the size of Finland.

Approximately 5 million tons of fibre could be manufactured from Finland’s current logging residue (25 million cubic metres/year). This could replace more than 20% of globally produced cotton, at the same time reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 120 million tons, and releasing enough farming land to grow food for 18 million people. Desertification would also decrease by approximately 10 per cent.

I am guessing this initiative is focused on nanocellulose since the news release makes no mention of it but it is highly suggestive that one of the project leads, Olli Ilkkala mentions nanocellulose as part of the research for which he received a major funding award as recently as 2012,. From a Feb. 7, 2012 Aalto University news release announcing the grant for Ikkala’s research,

The European Research Council granted Aalto University’s Academy Professor Olli Ikkala funding in the amount of €2.3 million for research on biomimetic nanomaterials. Ikkala’s group specialises in the self-assembly of macromolecules and how to make use of this process when producing functional materials.

The interests of Ikkala’s group focus on the self-assembled strong and light nanocomposite structures found in nature, such as the nacreous matter underneath seashells and biological fibres resembling silk and nanocellulose. [emphasis mine] Several strong natural materials are built from both strong parallel elements and softening and viscosifying macromolecules. All sizes of structures form to combine opposite properties: strength and viscosity.

The research of the properties of biomimetic nanocomposites is based on finding out the initial materials of self-assembly. Initial material may include, for example, nano platelets, polymers, new forms of carbon, surfactants and nanocellulose.[emphasis mine]

– Cellulose is especially interesting, as it is the most common polymer in the world and it is produced in our renewable forests. In terms of strength, nano-sized cellulose fibres are comparable to metals, which was the very offset of interest in using nanocellulose in the design of strong self-assembled biomimetic materials, Ikkala says. [emphases mine]

Celluforce update

After reading about the Finnish initiative, I stumbled across an interesting little article on the Celluforce website about the current state of NCC (nanocrystalline cellulose aka CNC [cellulose nanocrystals]) production, Canada’s claim to fame in the nanocellulose world. From an August 2013 Natural Resources Canada, Canadian Forest Service, Spotlight series article,

The pilot plant, located at the Domtar pulp and paper mill in Windsor, Quebec, is a joint venture between Domtar and FPInnnovations called CelluForce. The plant, which began operations in January 2012, has since successfully demonstrated its capacity to produce NCC on a continuous basis, thus enabling a sufficient inventory of NCC to be collected for product development and testing. Operations at the pilot plant are temporarily on hold while CelluForce evaluates the potential markets for various NCC applications with its stockpiled material. [emphasis mine]

When the Celluforce Windsor, Québec plant was officially launched in January 2012 the production target was for 1,000 kg (1 metric ton) per day (there’s more in my Jan. 31 2012 posting about the plant’s launch). I’ve never seen anything which confirms they reached their production target, in any event, that seems irrelevant in light of the ‘stockpile’.

I am somewhat puzzled by the Celluforce ‘stockpile’ issue. On the one hand, it seems the planning process didn’t take into account demand for the material and, on the other hand, I’ve had a couple back channel requests from entrepreneurs about gaining access to the material after they were unsuccessful with Celluforce.  Is there not enough demand and/or is Celluforce choosing who or which agencies are going to have access to the material?

ETA Oct. 14, 2013: It took me a while to remember but there was a very interesting comment by Tim Harper (UK-based, emerging technologies consultant [Cientifica]) in Bertrand Marotte’s May 6, 2012 Globe & Mail article (about NCC (from my May 8, 2012 posting offering some commentary about Marotte’s article),

Tim Harper, the CEO of London-based Cientifica, a consultant on advanced technologies, describes the market for NCC as “very much a push, without signs of any pull.”

It would seem the current stockpile confirms Harper’s take on NCC’s market situation. For anyone not familiar with marketing terminology, ‘pull’ means market demand. No one is asking to buy NCC as there are no applications requiring the product, so there is ‘no pull/no market demand’.

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